Arctic desert

Arctic desert
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First Published: Fri, Dec 11 2009. 09 08 PM IST

Cold country: (top) Longyearbyen is between Norway and the North Pole; Sen in Peterhof, Russia. Photographs: Amit Sen
Cold country: (top) Longyearbyen is between Norway and the North Pole; Sen in Peterhof, Russia. Photographs: Amit Sen
Updated: Fri, Dec 11 2009. 09 08 PM IST
Director of United East Bengal Football Team Amit Sen, 60, and his wife Upaneeta travelled to Svalbard in the Arctic Circle in August for a summer holiday in the freezing cold. Edited excerpts from an interview.
Cold country: (top) Longyearbyen is between Norway and the North Pole; Sen in Peterhof, Russia. Photographs: Amit Sen
What made you travel to this remote part of the world?
We have a core group of friends, all in our late 50s, who take travel and leisure very seriously. Every year, my wife Upaneeta, a travel professional, throws up one offbeat destination in combination with a popular tourist spot for us to explore. Last year, we went for an Alaskan cruise and also visited the Kenai fjords and the Denali National Park. While there, we were shocked to see the Davidson glacier about three-fourth of the size since we’d seen it on our first visit, in 2003. It didn’t take us long to decide we had to go to the North Pole before global warming hit it in a similar way.
Could you describe your route?
Well, we visited Hamburg, Copenhagen, Stockholm and did a four-night cruise that took us to Tallinn and St Petersburg. Nine of us did the Scandinavia trip but on 8 August, only four of us—my wife, myself and another couple—caught a flight to Longyearbyen in Svalbard, a small cluster of islands between mainland Norway and the North Pole. It’s a significant base for polar research, and also home to some 3,500 polar bears. Spitsbergen, where Longyearbyen is located, is the largest of the three populated islands in the archipelago. It literally means “jagged mountain”. Not a single tree or plant grows in Svalbard.
And Longyearbyen—is it a one-horse town?
At 78 degrees North, it’s one of the northern-most towns in the world—serviced only by a seasonal commercial airport—and the largest population centre of Svalbard, with 1,700 people. Snowmobiles far outnumber automobiles here. There’s a church, a junior school, three hotels, four guesthouses, 10 shops and three restaurants. It’s a popular base camp for adventure tourists, which explains the profusion of accommodation options. We stayed at Hotel Spitsbergen, perched on a hilltop and in between two small glacial slopes. Tradition demands you take off your shoes upon entering the hotel and put them back only when you go out.
Would you count yourself among adventure tourists?
No, we aren’t adventure tourists in the strict sense of the term, but we wanted to explore the region as much as possible on foot. We did a 10-hour boat ride to Pyramiden and the Nordenskold glacier. It’s difficult not to be impressed by the layers upon layers of mountains all along the way to Pyramiden, an abandoned Russian mining town, 6 hours away. It was the world’s northern-most mine before being closed down after the break-up of the USSR in 1993. With its abandoned mining pits, housing structures for more than 1,000 workers and even a 400-seater auditorium, it looks like a ghost town today. The 30 present-day residents, all Russians, carry shotguns with them all the time, since Pyramiden is part of the polar bears’ seal-hunting territory. That’s not the most interesting part of town, though—or even the bust of Lenin that still stands there—it’s the grass that grows here. Apparently, the Russians brought soil and grass from Siberia and planted them here to prove a point to the Western world, which believed nothing would ever grow here.
On another boat trip to Barentsburg and the Esmark glacier—also over 9 hours long—we crossed Isfjorden and sailed towards the calving glacier face of the Esmark glacier, a majestic and magnificent mobile glacier. It’s quite the done thing on the boat to have whisky or a soft drink on chunks of glacial ice collected from the Arctic Sea. Barentsburg is the last of the Russian mining towns still active in the region.
The crucial question—how cold was it?
On my first walk around Svalbard, I realized that despite the proximity to the North Pole, the archipelago has a relatively mild climate in comparison to other areas in the same latitude. August is the end of summer and the temperature ranges between 4 degrees Celsius and -3 degrees Celsius. With just 200-300mm annual rainfall, Svalbard is also called an “Arctic desert”.
Around the glaciers, the temperature could dip to as low as -12 degrees Celsius. Though the interiors of the boat were heated, on the upper and lower decks temperatures ranged between 0 and -6 degrees Celsius. On the boat trips we were dressed in layers complete with double socks, gloves, skullcaps and woollen scarves, topped with heavy weatherproof jackets.
As told to Sumana Mukherjee. Share your last holiday with us at lounge@livemint.com
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First Published: Fri, Dec 11 2009. 09 08 PM IST